Women and Environmental Politics

Luhui Whitebear

You were a whole island, once / Who remembers you beyond your death?

—Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, “Anointed” (2018)

In the crossroads of life and death for living beings on earth, there is a clear path to ensuring that life continues, and a path that leads to destruction. Far too many times the path of consumption and globalization is chosen, with devastating consequences for people and the earth. In resistance to this choice, women raise strong voices in helping the world understand the dangers that lie ahead.

This chapter brings in some of these voices to explain the ways in which women and girls have been involved in environmental politics. The work they are involved with is personal, based in their cultural understandings of the earth, and on behalf of all life. Their stories are powerful; coupled with in-depth conversations, they lead us to understanding the root causes of the global environmental crisis in which we all currently live.

Understanding Terminology

“Environmental politics” refers to the ways in which humans interact with the natural world, and how these interactions are shaped by rules, customs, and policies. Environmental politics are determined by our identities, our cultures, and the types of systems in which we live. In many times and places, these systems have been affected by the process of settler colonialism.

“Settler colonialism” occurs when an outside society moves to a new area with the intent of replacing existing societal customs, norms, and governing systems (Tuck and Yang 2012, 5). Settler colonialism has occurred throughout history and in all parts of the world, including the Baltics, China, the Nordic countries, Okinawa, the Philippines, Siberia, Singapore, and Taiwan, just as a few examples. But how it is experienced depends on who is colonizing and the Indigenous communities that are colonized. The use of othering and inferiority are discussed further throughout this chapter.

Possibly more familiar examples of settler colonizing include British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonizers in Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, the Pacific Islands, and African countries such as Algeria, the Congo, and South Africa. Yet the argument that settler colonization is a historical process is often used to “normalize” the continued occupations and exploitations of Indigenous peoples.

sculpture of settlers that reads 'Valiant men have thrust our frontiers to the setting sun' (link to file)
An example of settler colonialism

Settler colonial societies are heavily reliant on heteropatriarchy, in which cisgender men assert a voice of authority and control, a process of systematic power. Women are generally disadvantaged in these systems and limited in their ability to influence policies that govern their lives and the environments in which they live. (Note: in this chapter the terms woman and women always include trans women.)

Little Miss Flint

by Charissa V. Jones

Amariyanna 'Mari' Copeny (link to file)
Little Miss Flint

Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint,” entered the public eye in 2016 when she helped bring national exposure to the water crisis in her community of Flint, Michigan. In 2014 the City of Flint changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (which provided treated water) to the Flint River. Since City officials did not apply proper treatment procedures to the Flint River water, from April 2014 through 2019, citizens dealt with murky water contaminated with lead and Legionnaires’ disease.

Fed up with the lack of response from city officials, 8-year-old Mari wrote a letter to then-president Barack Obama outlining the crisis and asking for help. President Obama replied to her letter and brought national and federal awareness to the issue. Unfortunately, local officials and the media maintained that the water was safe and that residents were being paranoid. These narratives, coupled with the city’s inaction, led the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to declare the poor governmental response a result of “systemic racism.” Today, Little Miss Flint (a nickname Mari earned after she won a beauty pageant in 2015 but has become synonymous with her social justice work) continues to speak out about the Flint water crisis and other social justice issues, such as former President Trump’s immigration policies.

Since settler colonial systems rely on the replacement of existing societies, Indigenous practices are also dismissed and/or disregarded by those who govern the settler colonial societies. Indigenous-based land management practices are grounded in local knowledge of lands, waters, animals, and plants that have been passed down orally through generations, predating settler colonial influences. The practices are sometimes referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). TEK is more than practices; it is knowledge based in traditional stories, often protected by Indigenous communities as a way to prevent exploitation by settler colonial societies.

TEK is not the focus of this chapter but an important part of Indigenous-based land practices. Because settler colonialism relies on the continued dispossession of Indigenous people from their original lands and waters, Indigenous-based land practices are viewed as “alternative,” “decorative,” or simply in opposition to colonial land-use practices.

Also at odds with Indigenous-based land practices is frontier capitalism, in which previously “undeveloped” areas are moved into for economically profitable uses (usually at odds with sustainability), such as clearing of forests for agricultural land or drilling for oil. Pinkaew Laungaramsri explains that frontiers are “where the confusion of boundaries between law and theft, governance and violence, usage and destruction, public and private, and discipline and wilderness facilitate capitalist proliferation” (Laungaramsri 2012, 464). Frontier capitalism relies on these confusions to capitalize on Indigenous lands and waters with little regard for the impact on the Indigenous peoples of those areas.

Frontier Capitalism: A Case in Point

by Janet Lockhart

(link to file)
Environmental results of phosphate mining on Nauru

An example of the misuse of lands for profit at the expense of Indigenous people is the island of Nauru, in the Pacific, which was mined by British and Australian companies for phosphate, a mineral with industrial uses.

The mining has rendered most of the small island uninhabitable, disrupted local culture, and left the Nauruan people highly dependent on foreign aid. (Since only the coastline is still inhabitable, as climate change causes sea levels to rise, the inhabitants are increasingly vulnerable.)

The primary goal of frontier capitalism is profit, fueled by the commodification of lands, waters, and bodies at the expense of Indigenous peoples, who have often been pushed into areas that become new frontiers. The impacts of pollution and labor exploitation are significant and include minimal pay, child labor, high exposure to factory pollutants, and sexual violence. Reproductive health is also affected, often from pollutants that lead to infertility, birth defects, and higher rates of cancer.

Frontier capitalism relies on these types of exploitations in what settler societies call “‘backward’ area[s]” in which they impose “the will to civilise the ethnic other, bringing them into order” (Laungaramsri 2012, 466). Since it is an extension of settler colonialism, connections to lands and waters are also severed by frontier capitalism.

Settler colonial systems seek to replace Indigenous inhabitants and to extract resources. Those who feel the impacts the most are Indigenous people. Globally, Indigenous people have watched settler societies treat their lands and waters like frontiers to conquer, tame, and exploit. Indigenous relationships with lands suffer, as do other forms of life. The extractive nature—removing the valuable resources—is based on capitalizing on as much of the resources as possible, no matter the cost. Today, Indigenous people have been on the front lines of opposing climate change that has resulted from unsustainable settler practices, including farming, plantations, metal and mineral mining, drilling, fishing, logging, and other practices—which deplete the soil, lead to runoff, and release toxic substances into the air, water, and soil.

Indigenous people have also been on the front lines of resistance. As Leanne Simpson states, “Indigenous peoples have extremely rich anticapitalist practices in our own histories and current realities” (Simpson 2017, 72). The loss of those relationships with lands and waters as well as our ability to live in balance are not worth the profits gained by settler societies, especially since those who pay the price are Indigenous people.

These issues serve as a guide to understanding the complexities of environmental politics as well as the role of women in them. Understanding that we all have a stake in the future of environmental politics and that some communities have more to lose sooner than others serves as a reminder of the crossroads we are in.

Anti-Indigeneity in Environmental Politics

Once we understand that environmental politics include both how humans interact with the natural world and how policies shape these interactions, the treatment of Indigenous people in environmental politics cannot be overlooked. As outlined throughout this chapter, Indigenous people have traditional and ancestral knowledge about maintaining a relationship with the earth. These relationships are not based on profit margins, exploitation of resources, and control of lands and waters; they are based on teachings that allow Indigenous people to coexist with the natural world and to ensure future generations are able to do the same. These relationships are not in alignment with settler colonial practices.

Environmental laws and policies in place throughout the world have been constructed and decided upon by settler nations; that is, those peoples who have moved into an area already occupied and taken it over for their own occupation and use. The impacts on Indigenous people and future generations have not historically been taken into consideration. Even activism and other movements that work for change to address the climate crisis operate within the settler framework: plans and policies are constructed by those who benefit from the colonization.

Nixon (2015) asserts that “Colonialism and capitalism, which fuel resource extraction and environmental contamination, are an attack on both Indigenous lands and Indigenous peoples’ bodies.” It is difficult to fully bring concerns about environmental impacts of settler policies into conversations for change because these systems were made to exclude Indigenous voices. As Bacon (2019) emphasizes:

This eco-social structure relies on forces of both cultivation (programs, policies, and discourses promoting settler expansion) and discipline (organizations which generate and enforce prohibitions on land access and use) which shape eco-social relations in ways that meet settler interests at the expense of Native peoples. (63)

The relations described by Bacon have been constructed primarily by white, cisgender men. Indigenous women’s voices, especially, are silenced by eco-social relations owing to the ways in which capitalism has been constructed in settler nations.

Settler Influences on Environmental Politics

Capitalism, Globalization, and Exploitation

In Ethnicity, Inc., John and Jean Comaroff describe how capitalism affects ethnic cultures. They quote a Tswana (a people of southern Africa) elder discussing the impact of economics on the continuation of culture, stating, “If we have nothing of ourselves to sell, does it mean that we have no culture?” and further, “If this is so, then who are we?” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009, 10).

This speaks truth into the ways in which cultures have been affected by capitalism and globalization. The Comaroffs bring in Indigenous voices from Africa and North America to show not only how culture is shaped by colonialism, but also how relationships with natural resources used for cultural materials have changed. For example, they discuss how basket materials (and the stories that go along with them) have changed in some instances to allow for faster production of goods to sell to tourists traveling through Indigenous communities. The relationships and the connections with these materials have been interrupted. As a result, traditional stories are not passed down either.

Relationships with lands and waters are transformed when the top priority is determining what can be extracted. Laungaramsri writes that in Laos, “Rubber plantations and land concessions were identified as the key strategies to transform the economy from its traditional subsistence agriculture[1] base towards a market-oriented one” (Laungaramsri 2012, 468). The profits generated from these plantations do not return to the local people, however, but to the investors. What remains in the local community is the exploitation of labor, where the people suffer from poor working conditions and low pay. The lands and waters are transformed to meet an industrialized use that contaminates them.

children in garbage dump (link to file)
Industrial contamination of land in Haiti

The exploitation of lands, waters, and Indigenous labor is heavily influenced and controlled by settler colonial nations, either directly or through foreign investment. J. M. Bacon describes the resulting structures as forms of violence. Bacon writes, “because settler colonialism’s fundamental goal is the ongoing appropriation of Indigenous land and resources by and for the benefit of settlers it is an especially important lens for thinking about eco-social relations” (Bacon 2019, 59). In many instances, Indigenous peoples are dispossessed from lands as well as limited from access to sacred sites and cultural materials so that profits can be generated.

These exploitations are justified by settler colonial views of land management (something to be used or consumed) rather than Indigenous land relationships. While it is not possible to discuss the full impacts of capitalism, globalization, and exploitation by settler nations in this chapter, understanding this framework helps us think critically about the ways in which environmental politics have been shaped in recent times.

Innovative Approach to Sustainability: Involve Women

by Shannon Garvin

The United Nations (UN) notes that with the right support and financing, Africa is well positioned to largely skip the polluting stage of electrical production and move straight to renewable solar and wind energy. Large portions of most African countries still do not have power, but solar kits are now enabling women to access cheap power for themselves and their families—and they refer their friends. The Energy2Equal program aims to increase jobs and leadership opportunities for African women in the renewable energy sector.

Recent efforts in Southeast Asia are involving women in efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic waste. Some women in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam are committing to a “zero-waste lifestyle,” and a small Indonesian company combines cement with mulched plastic waste to make “Rebricks.” Mercy Barends, a member of the House of Representatives of Indonesia, calls for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to involve women in decision-making, as they are involved at every stage of producing, managing, and recycling plastics. In 2019 the Ocean Conservancy recognized the importance of women’s roles in their report The Role of Gender in Waste Management.

Further, understanding that women have usually not held positions of systemic power in settler nations means that it has been largely cisgender men (predominately white) that have shaped these eco-social relations and the ways in which we experience environmental politics. The United States and other industrialized nations are not exceptions. Rather, they are prime examples.

Settler Colonialism as Present Tense

On a global scale, Indigenous people have been continually pushed and moved to areas undesirable for development. Their labor has been consumed as a resource along with the lands and waters; what can be described as extraction and exploitation. Ewout Frankema and Frans Buelens describe “colonial extraction” as “a net transfer of economically valuable resources from [I]ndigenous to metropolitan societies, and ‘colonial exploitation’ as the practices and procedures facilitating the extraction of resources without adequate compensation to [I]ndigenous peoples and their natural environment” (Frankema and Buelens 2013, 2).

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Resource extraction that pollutes air and water

Their comparison of the Belgian Congo in Africa and the Netherlands Indies (also called the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) offers a look at the long-term impacts of these colonial actions by Europeans. Colonial encroachment and the use of lands for farming and mining in the twentieth century depleted lands for other uses and posed threats to the local communities culturally and physically, in the forms of genocide, forced labor, and sexual exploitation. They describe the Belgian Congo and the Netherlands Indies as being “among the most effectively exploited colonies of the modern era” (Frankema and Buelens 2013, 3). But the impacts of settler colonialism are felt in many other parts of the world.

The disruption of women’s leadership and management of subsistence economies often subjects women to sex work, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and sexually transmitted diseases (Whitmore 2012) when mostly male groups move in to take control of lands and resources. These rises are conclusively linked to colonial extraction of resources in Brazil, Burma, India, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and many other places in which Indigenous people are subjected to settler colonialism at the hands of industrialized countries.

For example, Australia, Canada, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States own the largest mining interests in Benguet, home of the Ibaloi and Kankan-ey Indigenous people of the Philippines (Whitmore 2012). These countries’ mining and removal of gold, copper, and other minerals benefit themselves, and this exploitation leaves lasting environmental and social impacts on the Indigenous people.

Examples of the impacts on Indigenous people around the world are numerous. Logging requires the building of roads, which disrupts the local ecosystem, including wildlife habitat and water quality. The logging itself leaves soil vulnerable to erosion, kills or displaces native wildlife, introduces invasive species, reduces the uptake of carbon dioxide by trees and other plants, and interferes with the natural life cycle of the forests. Similar effects occur with overfishing and large-scale agriculture.

area of deforestation (link to file)
Effects of logging in Australia

Human systems are also affected, from loss of natural resources they depend on for subsistence, to forced removal from their homelands, to vulnerability to diseases brought in by the outsiders who extract the resources, to loss of autonomy and decision-making power over their own lives, to outright physical and sexual violence, and even genocide.

Man Camps

by Charissa V. Jones

“Man camps” are temporary lodgings, generally mobile homes or other modular housing, that pop up near remote areas where valuable resources are being extracted from the earth (such as the Keystone XL Pipeline project) for economic gain. While this setup is beneficial to the extractive organization (such as a corporation) because it requires fewer resources to support their mostly male workforce, it wreaks havoc on the local communities, particularly Indigenous communities.

Man camps drastically increase the population of an area and cause a strain on community infrastructure, such as law enforcement and other resources. The increased male population also brings with it an increase in crime and violence—particularly sexual violence, taking the forms of sexual assault, rape, and sex trafficking—which have negatively affected Indigenous women and girls. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) campaign is one example of an attempt to bring awareness to this issue.

Visit MMIW USA (mmiwusa.org), MMIWG2S (csvanw.org), and Who Is She: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaign (whoisshe.ca) for more information.

The end result is the same—Indigenous communities are left with the traumas of settler impacts, compounded by ongoing occupation of their lands. Settler nations work in a network of who controls the resources and who is benefiting. The power imbalances created have direct environmental and societal impacts. Under the guise of “growth” and “advancement,” settler nations create ways to absolve themselves of the harm caused to Indigenous people, lands, and waters.

The United States as a Settler Colonial Nation

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014) asserts, “The affirmation of democracy requires denial of colonialism, but denying it does not make it go away” (116). This statement reflects the origin story of the United States—that as a settler nation it assumed its own superiority over others—as well as its current-day interactions with Indigenous people on a global scale. At the heart of her statement is a call to recognize that the United States is a settler colonial nation, formed by exploiting Indigenous people and Indigenous lands to create a new society. Indigenous people have been subjected to the traumas of displacement, broken treaties, destruction and pollution of their homelands, diseases and health issues, violent conflicts, and genocide as a result.

The United States did not stop colonial exploitation of lands and peoples within the geopolitical borders of the country. One of the ways it continues its colonial reach is by designating Pacific islands as territories. The Indigenous people of these territories do not have the right to vote on matters that affect them or their lands and waters. Rather, they have been expected to obediently relocate or be gracious hosts to military occupation.

The nuclear bomb testing in the Marshall Islands is one example of the extent of this exploitation. “Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands” (Atomic Heritage Foundation, n.d.). Although the majority of the tests occurred at Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll, all of the Marshall Islands suffered the effects of nuclear fallout. In the announcement of the forced relocation of the Marshallese people, they were told their island homelands would be used “for the good of mankind,” with promise of their return. Long-lasting health impacts, which include cancers and reproductive health issues, affect the Marshallese people to this day. Despite the promise, to “return” now means to face fish and other food sources contaminated with radiation, and to be exposed to radiation at dangerous levels themselves.

mushroom cloud (link to file)
Nuclear bomb detonation on a Pacific island

The bombing of the Marshall Islands did not end in 1958. In February 2020, the US Air Force launched an unarmed missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base (California) to Kwajalein Atoll to test the accuracy and reliability of their weapons system. What many people do not know is that Vandenberg Air Force Base is on the lands of the Chumash people, who have largely been deprived of their rights by colonization. Because of this occupation, burial and cultural sites on the base are not accessible to the Chumash people. This militarized occupation of their unceded lands connects the Chumash people to the Marshallese people and their lands by more than the missile launches.

The Western State Legal Foundation stated:

These tests contaminated both the land and people of the Marshall Islands, and both nuclear testing and continued U.S. military activities have resulted in the forced removal of the local people from their ancestral homes. Like Vandenberg, Kwajalein has become a multi-purpose facility, its radars and other instrumentation supporting a variety of missile defense interceptor launches and other military tests. (Lichterman 2006, 1)

The impacts on lands, waters, and peoples span generations. Like the offshore oil drilling that threatens shorelines and the Channel Islands with little regard to how the Chumash people are affected, Vandenberg completes military tests on Chumash lands. The traumatic 2020 missile test serves as a reminder to both the Marshallese and Chumash people that their lands are occupied by the United States, and that what happens on their lands is decided by colonizers.

Exploitation includes more than the presence of military bases and nuclear testing on Indigenous lands. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) states that despite restricting military assistance in 1977, the United States played a major role in supporting Guatemalan dictators in military training, reputed to include torture and assassination, at the former School of the Americas (GHRC 2013), at Fort Benning, Georgia. Despite knowing these dictators were responsible for genocide of Indigenous people in Guatemala during the 1970s and 1980s, the United States continued to train them, which led to the further militarization of Guatemala.

The massacres and displacement of the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala benefit the United States directly. Indigenous resistance to land and labor exploitation is interrupted by attacks on these peoples. For example, in their “Neoliberalism” fact sheet, the GHRC discuss the violation of worker’s rights at US-based company Del Monte Foods’ banana plantations (GHRC 2009). Not only are Indigenous people dispossessed of lands in order for the plantations to exist, but they receive minimal pay—for what may be their only source of employment—and experience poor work conditions that have led to death. Indigenous people have died so the United States and other developed countries can have year-round access to bananas.

Additionally, natural resource extraction is part of the colonizing of Guatemala by the United States and other developed nations. As described above, militarization played a major role in clearing land and opening the doors of exploitation in Guatemala. Even while peace accords were negotiated in 1996 to help end armed conflicts, the door was opened further to transnational mining companies (Solano, Moore, and Moore 2020, 7).

For example, Kappes, Cassiday, & Associates (KCA), a US-based metal mining company, faced resistance from Indigenous people referring to themselves as La Puya to cease their operations. The majority of those leading the efforts of La Puya are women. The concerns of Indigenous communities are significant and related to water scarcity and the health impacts of mining (Solano, Moore, and Moore 2020, 11).

Despite this resistance, however, militarized attacks on peaceful protesters allowed KCA to start operations in 2014 (Moore and Moore 2020). Two years later, KCA was ordered to suspend operations for not consulting properly with Indigenous people. While this was a temporary victory, KCA has taken the Guatemalan government to court, suing them for more than $400 million in an effort to continue their mining operations (Solano, Moore, and Moore 2020, 5).

Equity and Sustainable Fashion

by Ramona Flores

With trends evolving rapidly, many fast fashion companies routinely cut corners to meet financial and production margins, often at the expense of the environment and the workers. Organizations like the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, located in London, conduct research around sustainability and fashion while providing education about sweatshop exploitation and excessive industrial waste.

Organizations like WRAP focus on single-use packaging and waste reduction by working with large companies like Coca-Cola, Google, and Nestlé to work toward systemic change. The push for sustainability in clothing and other lifestyle products has garnered a larger public audience, with celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres promoting different causes and products via social media.

Many companies that sell fast fashion, including Fashion Nova, exploit migrant workers from their United States-based workshops and label their clothes “Made in America.” As Forbes explains, this label prompts the buyer to make untrue assumptions about the ethical practices that went into the creation of the garment. Contrary to these assumptions, these fast fashion companies pay an average of $2.77 per hour.

The rise of the menstrual equity movement has led to the creation and manufacturing of a variety of sustainable menstrual products. Such products include the time-tested menstrual cup, underwear made specifically to absorb menstrual blood, and biodegradable pads and tampons. In the larger conversation about environmentalism, incorporating necessary menstrual products is a key part of the shift toward sustainability, especially when nonbiodegradable tampons and pads can exist for hundreds of years after their brief use.

Sustainability not only has to include what is worn externally but also all aspects of life, from menstrual products to food packaging.

This action disregards the requests of the local Indigenous people and their concerns about water and health. It is a clear exertion of systematic power for a US mining company to sue the government of another country. These are just two examples of the role of the United States as a colonial force in Guatemala, and while the United States does offer some relief aid to Guatemala, these efforts do not equate to justice for the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala. Rather, they are a Band-Aid to a deep wound the United States has played a role in causing, which continues today.

These are among the many ways in which the United States benefits from or is directly involved with furthering colonization. Harking back to Dunbar-Ortiz’s quote, refusing to acknowledge the United States as a settler colonial nation helps clothe its actions in the guise of democracy, but the reality remains. Settler colonial nations continue to colonize and extract resources in order to gain more systematic power and control. The United States is not separate from this, but rather an example of what colonization looks like, both historically and in the present.

Further Impacts

As a settler colonial nation, the United States enacts laws and policies that will benefit itself above others. Land and labor exploitation have more than immediate impacts, however. For example, the climate crisis is an effect of the ongoing disregard for Indigenous-based knowledge and land practices in an assertion of colonial superiority, the “right” to use lands and labor to its own benefit.

The Marshallese people feel the generational health impacts from radiation exposure. But they still live in the area even though the lands and food are not safe anymore. The peoples’ bodies are further contaminated and traumatized, attesting to the effects of war perpetrated by the United States. In Guatemala, the local Indigenous people continue to face violence and external exploitation of their lands. The quantity and quality of water are threatened in order to extract resources, both in mines and on food plantations. In this Guatemala, the peoples’ bodies are put on the line for larger profits. In both cases, Indigenous people pay the most immediate price.

But the actions of the United States and other industrialized countries affect all parts of the world. Just as the radiation is not isolated to the Marshall Islands, the effects of actions that increase the carbon load are not isolated to local areas. The impacts are global. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) lists the United States as one of the top contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, which make up the majority of greenhouse gases (UCS 2020). Further, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that in the United States, human activity is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (EPA, n.d.). These emissions are the result of consumerism and capitalism, and the downplaying of the severity of climate change by the US government.

Cristina Mittermeier, Conservation Photographer

by Sarah Baum

Sometimes, life takes us to places we could never expect yet places us right where we need to be. This happened to conservationist photographer Cristina Mittermeier. Trained as a scientist with a degree in biochemical engineering, she expected her life’s work to be preserving ocean biodiversity. Instead, her life took a turn down an unexpected path. After working with Conservation International for several years, she took a trip to the Amazon to research an Indigenous region. While there, she took a few photos. When the trip ended, the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences requested materials for an Amazonian art exhibit. When Mittermeier attended the exhibit, she found one of her photographs displayed but credited to her husband. “You know, I felt that little sting of what it feels like to lose your copyright,” she says. “And I decided to take it seriously, so I went back to school for photography.”

And take it seriously she did, learning her craft and art to become one of the world’s most skilled conservation photographers. From behind her lens, she tells the story of the wilderness of the world around us and the places that are disappearing quickly due to climate change and exploitation. And while her photographs capture stunning moments and tell beautiful stories, Mittermeier didn’t stop there. She went on to become a translator, copy editor, photo editor, and eventually an editor of more than twenty-four books on conservation issues. Next, she helped found the International League of Conservation Photographers, which raises money for conservation issues. Her roots in marine biology also called her to cofound SeaLegacy. Even with all her efforts, she continues to produce breathtaking photographs of our disappearing wild planet. But it all started with a leap of faith into a new direction. “Whenever I feel a little fear, then I know I’m in the right place,” she says. “You often have to step out of your comfort zone, and feel a little uncomfortable to know that you’re creating an image that’s a different perspective or a new way of seeing things—something that maybe other people haven’t looked at yet.”

The US government system has been dominated by wealthier, white, older men since the founding of the country. As J. M. Bacon writes, “Since the wealth and power of the United State[s] as a state is grounded in the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands, I consider settler colonialism—though always in connections with other forms of domination—the primary force shaping eco-social relations in this country” (Bacon 2019, 60).

This is reflected in US policy and actions on climate change. Climate change first entered the political conversation in the United States in the 1950s, yet little action has been taken to address it since then, either through federal regulations or involvement on a global scale. Despite former President Bill Clinton signing the Kyoto Protocol to signify a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the United States has never ratified this international treaty, meaning the United States is not a formal party to it. Further, in 2020, former president Donald Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, a next step to the Kyoto Protocol. Although the United States has since rejoined the Paris Agreement under President Biden, the political performances of those in the highest office of the United States reflect to the world its priority of dominating over addressing the climate crisis.

Global emissions have an impact on all life on the planet yet have not been taken seriously by the United States. The United States benefits more from continued exploitation of lands and waters than it does from international policies that limit corporations like Del Monte Foods and KCA. In fact, the majority of lobbying affecting US climate policy is done by corporations, in opposition to pro-climate actions. For example, the major lobbying efforts by corporations in 2009 were against the American Clean Energy Security Act, also known as the Waman-Markey Act. Corporations spent more than $700 million in lobbying to defeat the bill in Congress (Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago 2019). Indigenous communities and other climate justice activists do not have this level of financial resources to spend in lobbying to support climate bills.

The Politics of Race, Gender, and Frontline Resistance

The “Othering” of Indigenous Communities

Indigenous people have always been viewed as “other” to colonizers. That is part of how colonization works: to go to a land and view one’s own customs, beliefs, and political systems as superior to the Indigenous ones. This superiority justifies the displacement of Indigenous peoples to make way for settlers and settler systems. This is not a process of the past: colonization is ongoing. The goal is to spread influence, maintain control, and benefit from the lands that are being colonized; as a result, Indigenous people continue to be othered.

This othering also justifies violence toward Indigenous bodies, which become something to be used or consumed. For example, Tara Atluri describes the ways in which some bodies are marked for violence in India “because of their aesthetic difference from the idealized figure of a normatively gendered body imagined to hold a rightful place in a Hindu middle-class family, a microcosm for the nation” (Atluri 2016, 154). While Atluri is discussing the 2012 Delhi gang rape of a dark-skinned woman, these types of “markings” are not limited to this single case or this single country. As Atluri asserts, “the psychic and symbolic associations made between darkness and deviance cannot be separated from colonial discourses” (Atluri 2016, 154). Indigenous bodies, especially darker bodies and women’s bodies, are viewed as deserving of violence and exploitation. It is easy justification to take advantage of something that is not worthy of respect.

Leah Thomas, Intersectional Environmentalist

by Charissa V. Jones

Leah Thomas, a Black female from the United States, coined the term “intersectional environmentalism” to acknowledge how justice, equity, and inclusion are crucial to saving both the planet and its peoples. She created the concept in May 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Her post on Instagram—which had the sentence “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter” repeating across it—went viral and helped to connect social justice issues to environmental conversations during a time when people were asking where social justice conversations could be conducted.

The intersectional environmentalist collective tackles environmental issues through an intersectional lens, identifying the ways in which “injustices affecting marginalized communities + Mother Earth are interconnected,” and working to overcome all types of oppression.

The construction of the “other” also has implications for Indigenous women’s leadership. For example, Indian scholar and environmental activist Vandana Shiva has worked for decades on protecting Indigenous-based farming and seed cultivation in India to lower dependence on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. Her efforts include a lawsuit against Monsanto, the largest seed patentor and supplier of genetically modified seeds in the world.

But the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), a US nonprofit organization that uses the slogan “Science Not Ideology,” uses the guise of “facts” to discredit Shiva’s work (GLP, n.d.). The project is heavily funded by US foundations controlled by white men. The project’s criticisms of Shiva include the claim that she is “anti-science,” describing her as “an anti-globalization, anti-corporate, deep ecology and radical eco-feminist activist” who “promotes land redistribution, [I]ndigenous and peasant farmers rights, organic-only food productions and ayurvedic health practices over conventional medicines” (GLP 2021).

These statements are presented as facts, not as biases in favor of western science and industrial farming practices. They also assert colonial dominance: they know what is best for India regardless if anyone from the Genetic Literacy Project has ever been there or contributed to the well-being of their Indigenous people. In this situation, we see white, cisgender men from a settler colonial nation declare that their voice is superior.

This is not an isolated example. When Indigenous people stand up to corporations, time and again, they are described as backward, behind the times, and/or anti-science. These stereotypes extend to other Indigenous people, and those who perpetuate them do not consider the benefits of following Indigenous land practices. It is not until western science validates Indigenous practices that settler colonial societies consider them valid.

“Saving” the “Global South” as Settler Colonialism

Because colonizers other Indigenous women, there is an assumption that Indigenous women do not know what is needed to face issues in their communities. Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003) discusses the ways in which “Third World women” are situated:

In terms of underdevelopment, oppressive traditions, high illiteracy, rural and urban poverty, religious fanaticism, and “overpopulation” of particular Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American countries. Corresponding analyses of “matriarchal” [B]lack women on welfare, “illiterate” Chicana farmworkers, and “docile” Asian domestic workers also abound in the context of the United States. Besides being normed on a white, Western (read: progressive/modern) or non-Western (read: backward/traditional) hierarchy, these analyses freeze Third World women in time, space, and history. (47-48)

Mohanty’s description is helpful in understanding the systemic power dynamics that are created when using the United States and other industrialized countries as a standard by which to judge other countries. The roles of women and their sense of self-agency in these countries are also compared to those of women from the United States. This comparison continues to other women from “Third World” countries.

The term Third World women is used to signal a universal understanding that these women do not have the same “privileges” constructed by “assumptions about Western women as secular, liberated, and having control over their own lives” (Mohanty 2003, 42). Mohanty also reminds us that without the construction of Third World women, “there would be no (singular and privileged) First World” (Mohanty 2003, 42). It is from this First World privilege that women from Third World countries are viewed as needing saving from their “lesser” conditions.

Like other colonial countries, the United States presents itself as a standard of an ideal nation. “Third World” has been used to describe countries that are not industrialized or do not operate from a capitalistic framework. In more recent times, the term “Global South” has been used in an attempt to shift away from a hierarchal view of countries (and the people from them). The problem is that generalization still occurs and is a construction of others based on the “Global North,” which is composed primarily of white-dominated colonial nations. The “poor” conditions of women in the Global South are based on comparisons with the excess accumulation of wealth and consumerism in the Global North.

The experiences of women in the top socioeconomic classes are used to reinforce superiority and to describe experiences in the Global North as less problematic. Often, this is framed as “at least it isn’t as bad as in [insert country].” This supposed superiority is a reflection of colonial systems, and pertinent issues may be decided by women from colonial nations. Women from the affected countries are often not involved in decision-making processes.

Women and girls have been addressing disparities and injustices in their own lands, however. Often, they are acting on behalf of their own people and understand the connections between their experiences of colonization and impacts on the environment.

(link to file)
A gathering for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Frontline Women and Girls of Resistance

Many women and girls have been on the front lines of resistance to continued exploitation and damage to their traditional lands. In a global sense, these stories map out a theme of protection of waters and lands for future generations. The stories highlighted here join the many stories before them, creating a much larger story of resistance to settler colonialism’s environmental impacts on Indigenous communities. Readers are encouraged to continue to learn more about these women and girls.

Autumn Peltier is the chief water protector for the Anishinabek Nation in Canada. As a teen, she addressed the United Nations, urging for the protection of clean water for all people (Gallant 2021). Peltier resists the impacts of extractive oil pipeline companies on water safety and advocates for access to clean water for First Nations communities (Indigenous nations in Canada) as well as other Indigenous communities around the world (APTN News 2016). Her work is based in her Anishinabek teachings and understandings of living in balance with the earth, to ensure that future generations also have access to water.

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish climate activist who began what became a global “School Strike for Climate” (Haynes 2019). She advocates at an international level for governments to reduce carbon emissions to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Thunberg is open about having Asperger’s syndrome, which initially prompted people in positions of systemic power to question whether she was capable of writing her own speeches—a testament to the power of her words. Like Autumn Peltier, Thunberg addressed the United Nations as a teen. She calls for world leaders to examine the ways in which laws and policies negatively affect the climate, to ensure the existence of future generations.

Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet, performer, educator, and environmental justice activist. She brings forth the experiences of frontline Pacific Island communities that are facing the immediate impacts of climate change on their islands. Jetñil-Kijiner centers her work on her Indigenous teachings and relationships with the ocean and islands. She cofounded the organization Jo-Jikum (n.d.) to help Marshallese youth engage with environmental justice work to protect their islands from climate change and to help heal their communities from the effects of nuclear bombing. Jetñil-Kijiner (2018) has also addressed the United Nations, where her poetry conveyed the effects of climate change on the Marshall Islands to the rest of the world.

Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist who in 1977 started the Green Belt Movement (n.d.), an environmental organization known primarily for helping women in Kenya grow seeds and plant trees as a way to help restore the environment as well as provide food, firewood, and a small income. Maathai has also addressed the United Nations several times and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts in creating sustainable futures.

Berta Caceres (link to file)
In memoriam: Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores

Berta Cáceres was a Lenca environmental activist and leader for her people in Honduras. Cáceras was a frontline defender and a cofounder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (n.d.). She was a leader in resistance to illegal logging, plantations, and the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River. Cáceras’s resistance was grounded in her Indigenous teachings about relationships with lands and waters as well as her concern about the negative environmental impacts on her people. She received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. In a backlash to her efforts, Cáceras was assassinated in 2016.

Haunani-Kay Trask was a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawai’i) poet, educator, and activist who also based her work on her Indigenous teachings. She first became involved with environmental justice in the 1970s, during the resistance to the bomb testing on the island of Kaho’olawe. Her efforts focused on Hawai’i sovereignty as a way to assert rightful protection of the Hawai’i Islands. As such, she emphasized the environmental impacts of tourism, military presence, and settler exploitation of land. She died on July 3, 2021 (Hofschneider 2021).

Pratima Gurung is an Indigenous, disabled woman from Nepal. As the general secretary of the Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network (2021), she focuses on the intersections of genders, disabilities, and the environment. Her efforts include advocating for culturally appropriate access to supplies, food, and medical needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also worked for relief for climate disasters, access to clean water, and stronger inclusion of Indigenous peoples with disabilities in climate justice work and policies.

Inka Saara Arttijeff is a Sámi climate activist from Finland (Narang 2018). She serves as adviser to the president of the Sámi Parliament, bringing Sámi concerns to the United Nations as part of the Indigenous Peoples Delegation. Arttijeff uses her Indigenous teachings and experiences with reindeer to assess the impacts of climate change on her people. Her efforts include intervening against encroachment on winter grazing lands by the logging industry and addressing policies that decide what happen to Sámi people and lands by settler nations (Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden). Along with other Sámi women, she brings a collective voice to help other nations understand the impacts of climate change on Sámi people, culture, and lands.

Tarcila Rivera Zea is a Quechuan activist from Peru who focuses on Indigenous rights in relation to environmental and women’s rights. In 1986, Zea founded the organization Chirapaq (n.d.), which now addresses food security and food sovereignty for Indigenous people of the Andes and Amazon. Led by Indigenous women, Chirapaq’s work strives to help restore relationships with the environment based on Indigenous teachings and agricultural practices, while also responding to the impacts of climate change.

Tara Houska is a Couchiching First Nations tribal attorney and climate activist from the United States who works toward environmental justice. Houska was a frontline defender during the Standing Rock NoDAPL Movement in North Dakota and the efforts to end Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline (Stop Fossil Fuels, n.d.). She was the former campaign director for Honor the Earth and served as the adviser on Native American Affairs to US Senator Bernie Sanders. Houska grounds her work in her Couchiching teachings and relationships with lands and waters.

Women at the Forefront of Environmentalism

by Rebecca Lambert

When you think of environmental activists, who comes to mind? You might think of Greta Thunberg, the teenager from Sweden who challenges politicians to seriously consider and craft solutions for the climate crisis. How many other women can you name that are working on environmental issues?

Women have long been a part of the fight for environmental justice, and there are many more to know. Vandana Shiva is an Indian-born scholar, activist, and environmental advocate who is widely known for her activism against GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Shiva also wrote the foundational text Ecofeminism, which examines the connection between patriarchal oppression and environmental destruction. West African Isatou Ceesay, from the Gambia, is known as the “Queen of Plastic Recycling.” She worked with a group of women from her village, and they began to make purses from the plethora of plastic bags plaguing the village. Her environmental efforts also support the economic empowerment of women, as she is a cofounder of the Women’s Initiative Gambia, which works with women in poverty to help them build skills and tools to increase their income.

But these are just a few of the women engaging in innovative environmental work. As part of your continued learning, find out more about other activists such as Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores, Winona LaDuke, Wangari Maathai, and Vanessa Nakate. Learn more about the issues they raise and how you can support their efforts.

Romanticizing Indigenous Women in Eco-Feminism

The women and girls described in this section are doing powerful work. They are from both the Global North and the Global South, yet their work is united with a common goal of environmental justice, sustainability, and climate justice—all necessary to ensure the health of the planet for future generations. Yet the majority of these women and girls are still “othered” through systemic oppression and a focus on the Global North. In some cases, their efforts are considered “accessory” to the eco-feminist movement.

While not all eco-feminists are white, eco-feminist efforts have operated largely from white-dominated leadership and uphold settler systems of control. Nicole Morse and Daniella Orias remind us that “Some ecofeminist scholars are justifiably critiqued for furthering the settler-colonial project of appropriating Indigenous cultures” and that “Ecofeminism is distinct from Indigenous feminisms because of its roots in Western European culture” (Morse and Orias 2020). Morse and Orias argue that eco-feminism is often treated as an add-on to bring nature into conversations about oppression; Indigenous women involved in environmental politics are often used as an “aesthetic” to eco-feminism without a closer examination of their unique experiences. Lindsay Nixon (2015) argues:

If eco-feminists truly want to engage with Indigenous feminism to legitimize their own movements, they must first engage with their own positionality and privilege as settlers: a positionality on which the continuation of settler-colonialism and the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples are prefaced. Furthermore, Indigenous peoples don’t need savior feminists defining what strategies must be used to address environmental contamination within Indigenous communities. Environmental violence has far reaching consequences including those that can be seen in the reproductive lives of Indigenous peoples. What Indigenous feminists want from eco-feminists is simple: Sit down, be quiet, and listen.

Indigenous women cannot be used as romantic stories to inspire or to remind eco-feminists of ancient earth connections. Their leadership must be understood as central to environmental politics.


Politics of Frontline Resistance

Indigenous women on the front lines represent a threat to white supremacy, the privileged Global North, and cis-heteropatriarchal systems of domination. Indigenous women on the front lines are viewed as a direct threat to the entire system. In the face of resistance, women are silenced figuratively by the media and literally through death, as evidenced by the murder of Berta Cáceras.

Frontline resistance asks for systemic change. It asks for policies to center the needs of earth and all life, not profit margins. It asks for laws to be upheld to protect the interests of the people rather than be used as a tool of colonial control. Frontline resistance is gendered, it is raced, and it looks beyond the privileges of the elite. Frontline resistance happens in homes, on farms, in the streets, in the mountains, on islands, on tribal lands, in between extractive machines and sacred sites, at the United Nations, on the steps of government buildings, and on the floors of senate buildings. Frontline resistance does not separate the personal and the political. Too much is at stake to separate the two, and Indigenous women are on the front lines around the world.

Where Do We Go from Here?

By this point, two things should be clear: (1) environmental politics have been largely controlled by settler colonial nations, and (2) major change must happen. The question then becomes, “Where do we go from here?” There are many thoughts around what it would mean to return lands to Indigenous peoples. There is also much hesitation of what this would mean for settler nations.

The piece missing from these conversations is that return of lands also means return to traditional land and water practices and relationships. Those relationships are the most important piece, not control in a settler sense. It is hard for many to imagine what a return to traditional relationships can look like, but it is possible. A key component is understanding that these relationship cannot be taken apart and reshaped to conform to settler systems. They need to be led by Indigenous people with the concerns of Indigenous people at the heart of decision-making.

Where Environmental Education, Activism, and Policies Succeed

by Shannon Garvin

In 1948, Costa Rica disbanded its military in favor of investing in its people. As it invested in education, health care, human rights, and other culturally stabilizing efforts, it created growth. After World War II, the World Bank and big businesses teamed up to mine resources and grow cattle (cheap beef) for export to US fast food chains. Unfortunately, this also meant massive loans and deforestation to small and developing nations.

After two decades of pillaging its tropical rain forests (85 percent was forested until the 1940s), the educated Costa Ricans revolted against international exploitation and in the late 1960s passed aggressive measures to proactively protect and reclaim the natural beauty of their land. Costa Rica offered grants and cash incentives to grow native crops and reforest.

Costa Rica is now the only country to regrow most of its rain forests (from 21 percent in 1990 to 52 percent in 2005), and it is home to 5 percent of all global biodiversity. Costa Rican scientists have preserved much of the nation (over 25 percent is nature preserves), and it is a gathering place for eco-tourists and scientists alike.

Because Costa Rica implemented life-sustaining policies and invested in education decades before any other nations, it is out of sync with most of the current economic and environmental goals of the global community. Eco-taxes pay farmers on the value of their land for the future. From 2000 to 2005, Indigenous farm ownership increased by 100 percent, and female ownership grew from 200 to 1,600 farms.

Costa Rica boasts the lowest poverty rates of Central and South America, but economic growth has also slowed in the past decade. It begs the questions: When has a country arrived at appropriate and life-sustaining intersectional policies? Is it reasonable that gross domestic product must always grow? In a “First World / Third World” mentality, what about Costa Rica?

Today, as conservatives and progressives posture inside the country and under international categories and pressure, arguing whether its policies were “worth it,” we hope Costa Rica can continue its bold pilgrimage toward sustainable and symbiotic living between humans and nature, and figure out the “next steps” as an example for other nations to follow.

The alternative is to continue down a path that has led to major climate disruptions and environmental catastrophe. The decisions being made today are not sustainable for the health of the planet or for the life that exists on it, including human life. Those on the front line are doing incredible work to help their communities thrive as best they can in the current conditions.

They also show the rest of the world what is possible. By breaking away from a settler colonial lens, we can learn from these frontline women and girls about leadership, hope, and direction for positive change. As Santee poet and activist John Trudell reminds us in his Thanksgiving speech:

We are foolish if we believe that we will destroy the world. Man has the ability to destroy all the people’s ability to live on the earth, but we do not have the power to destroy the earth. The earth will heal itself. The earth will purify itself of us. If it takes a billion years to get rid of the radiation, the earth will do it, because the earth has that kind of a time. We do not. (Third Eye 2017)

At another crossroad of decision-making about the future of environmental politics, we must remember these words and what is at stake with the choices we make. These choices go beyond the individual and must include systematic change. Despite the ways settler colonial systems have influenced us, we have the power to create change. Women have a voice and the ability to create changes to environmental politics in ways that can improve the situations of peoples around the world.

Learning Activities

  1. Whitebear argues that the United States was—and continues to be—a settler colonial nation. How does she support her argument? Contemporary conversations about US settler colonialism often focus on the past, rather than the present. How does Whitebear change the conversation when she foregrounds present-day examples?
  2. Explain the term Third World women. Why is it problematic? How does transnational feminism provide the theories and concepts to problematize terms and concepts like Third World women?
  3. As Whitebear notes, “women and girls have been on the front lines of resistance to continued exploitation and damage to their traditional lands.” Whitebear provides examples of women and girls such as Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Wangari Maathai, Berta Cáceres, Haunani-Kay Trask, Pratima Gurung, Inka Saara Arttijeff, Tarcila Rivera Zea, and Tara Houska. Working alone, with a partner, or in a small group, choose one of these women/girls and conduct some online research on her. What do you learn about your individual? How is she on the front lines? What actions is she taking? What are the responses of her detractors?
  4. Whitebear concludes the chapter by asking, “Where do we go from here?” How does she answer that question? Using the terms and concepts you’ve learned in this chapter, what other ideas can you add?
  5. Working in a small group, add these key terms to your glossary: environmental politics, settler colonialism, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), frontier capitalism, anti-indigeneity, colonial extraction/colonial exploitation, Third World women.


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Image Attributions

10.1 “Salem, Oregon” by Jasperdo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

10.2 “Children Scavenge for Valuables in Garbage Dump in Haiti” by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

10.3 Photo by Yogendra Singh from Pexels

10.4 “Managed Destruction” by Harlz_ is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

10.5 Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

10.6 “BC Gathering for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls” by BC Gov Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

10.7 “bertha caceres memoria” by jakarundi graphics is available under CC PDM 1.0

10.s5.1 “Nauru Island” by ARM Climate Research Facility is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

10.s.9.1 “Little Miss Flint (Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny) Leads the March from the Science Rally Stage to the Capitol, April 14th, 2018 #flintmichigan #flint #sciencemarchdc #KeepMarching #ScienceNotSilence #StandUp4Science #marchforscience #marchforsciencedc #dc #pro” by hillels is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

  1. Subsistence agriculture is that type of farming in which families or communities produce foods and other goods needed primarily for their own survival, perhaps with a small surplus to trade, rather than primarily for profit. Most pre- and nonindustrial farmers worldwide were/are subsistence farmers.


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Women Worldwide Copyright © 2022 by Luhui Whitebear is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.